I’m not sure I can embrace this argument entirely, but damned if I can poke any holes in it either.
This is the unspoken dynamic of American politics. It pervades blogs on both left and the right, accounting for the fantasies of victimization underlying most conservative discourse and for the strange liberal habit of offending while trying to appease. It explains why conservatives aren’t lying when they say they have no problem with Barack Obama being black; their real problem is with Barack Obama being black and smart.
We live in an undereducated country; at the same time, we’re told, again and again, that we’re entering an age in which intellectual capital will be the only capital that matters. It is no wonder that intelligence has become not just a source of insecurity but a stealth political issue that shows up every time a wealthy Republican candidate for president gets cheers for attacking “elites.” Just last week, left-leaning news feeds gleefully distributed the news that a researcher in Canada had established a link “between low intelligence and social conservatism”; just yesterday morning, the Times quoted the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land in a story that attempted to explain Newt Gingrich’s appeal to conservatives in terms of his vaunted intelligence.
“They would love to see a false smarty pants decapitated by a real intellectual,” Land said, speaking of conservatives’ wish to see Newt Gingrich debate the President. “He would tear Obama’s head off.”
In fact, the perceived “intelligence gap” between the two parties — and the conservative defensiveness about liberal condescension — explains the success of the Newt Gingrich campaign for more than his coded appeals to prejudice. It explains how Gingrich’s oft-stated rationale for his candidacy — that he’s the only candidate who could beat Obama “in a series of seven Lincoln-Douglas-style debates — went from being a laugh line to a legitimate selling point.
When liberals hear Gingrich sell himself on the basis of his intellect, they hear a blowhard who wants to be president to vindicate his narcissism; when conservatives hear the same thing, they hear someone willing, at long last, to step up for them and be their champion. Conservatives do not think that the mixed-race man who is president can be as smart as he is supposed to be; they don’t think that he can be smarter than them; they think that he is “a false-smarty pants” whose transcripts were altered to clear his way into Harvard, whose books were written by someone else, and whose eloquence leaves him as soon as he leaves the teleprompter. Obama’s intelligence is an affront to them, and so they’ve been depending on Gingrich not just to defeat but also to expose him — to finally get it over with, and, in a single debate, tear down not only the whole edifice of liberal thought but the also the myth of liberal intellectual superiority.
It is no accident that Gingrich’s strategy had its greatest success in South Carolina, a state whose combination of racial animus and genteel pretension guarantees its intellectual insecurity.